Fantasy Football: John Brown Is the Baltimore Ravens' Wide Receiver to Own in 2018
The Baltimore Ravens are set to have a new-look passing attack in 2018. While they'll have a familiar face at the helm in Joe Flacco, the weapons at his disposal will be very different than we've seen in the past.
That group will be replaced with a completely overhauled receiving corps, which will include Michael Crabtree, John Brown and Willie Snead. Brown and Crabtree will be the team's highest-paid players at the position (with Brown's cap hit sitting about $1.67 million higher than Crabtree's) and will compete to be top dog in the pecking order this season.
The fantasy-playing public has made it clear who their favorite to be the team's top wideout is. Crabtree is being taken in the sixth round, at an average draft position (ADP) of 66.5, making him the 30th receiver off the board. Brown is not even in the same neighborhood, going off the board as WR80 with an ADP of 213.1 -- meaning he is essentially free.
But, at that low draft cost, Brown -- not Crabtree -- is the guy to target in the Baltimore receiving corps.
Looking at their numbers since Brown entered the league in 2014, Crabtree has scored significantly more fantasy points:
That difference in scoring, though, is almost entirely the result of the difference in volume between the two, as they have been incredibly close in terms of fantasy points per target:
Of course, not all targets are created equal. Quarterback play is obviously a big component in how someone is going to produce on a per-target basis. There's not much even an elite wideout can do with an errant pass.
One way to account for this is to look at how the rest of the team's wide receivers fared. So, here we see the fantasy-point-per-target numbers for the Arizona Cardinals' wideouts (to compare with Brown) and those for Crabtree's former teammates with the Oakland Raiders and San Francisco 49ers.
We then subtract their teammates' averages from their own scores in order to take a look at how the two new Ravens have fared relative to the other wideouts on their former teams:
Crabtree has been more consistent relative to his teammates than Brown has, but looking at their totals the last four seasons the two stack up almost identically in this area.
This doesn't tell us definitively that they are equal players or that we can expect them to produce the same fantasy point per target marks in 2018. Efficiency stats are highly volatile, and it can often be a fool's errand to try to make decisions based purely on those numbers. There are also other things to be factored in.
Atop the list of other factors is Brown's long injury history, as he's missed at least one game in each of his last three seasons. It does give us a solid indication that the gap between these two, in terms of their ability to turn volume into fantasy points, isn't likely to be a big one over the long-term, though, regardless of who comes out on top in a given year. That would suggest that there's not necessarily a big difference in who an offense should look to get the ball to more often.
Fantasy football is, at its core, a game of uncertainty. We're not only trying to make decisions based on what outcome is the most likely but also on what the benefit will be when we are right and what the cost will be when we are wrong. That means you simply can't evaluate a situation like this one without giving heavy consideration to the cost in the form of fantasy draft capital.
As we already touched on, there are 49 wide receivers being drafted between Crabtree and Brown, and the two are being selected about 12 rounds apart. Crabtree requires a significant investment of an early-to-mid round draft pick. Brown, on the other hand, has an ADP that would likely leave him undrafted in a standard 12-team, 15-round draft, while being a late-round flier in 20-round best ball formats.
If you make the correct call between these two, and land yourself what ends up being the team's top fantasy wideout -- your return on investment is obviously very different thanks to draft position. One thing that really stands out about the difference is that if you draft Crabtree and he does end up being the top scorer, you're still not guaranteed to get any real value in return.
In the last 3 seasons, there have been 25 instances of a team's top fantasy wideout not finishing as WR30 or better. And if you do the math that's 26% of those players. Last year, the Ravens' top wideout ranked only 38th in fantasy scoring, and they have not had a receiver finish better than WR22 in the three-year sample. A finish in that range would be a great outcome for Brown but a disappointment for Crabtree at his price.
The Ravens' second-best fantasy wideout has finished better than WR80 in each of those seasons as well -- at WR66 in 2017, 38 in 2016 and 53 in 2015. Those finishes would all be disappointments for Crabtree, and while finishes of 66 and 53 are not particularly exciting even for a guy taken at the end of the draft, that can still offer some decent value on Brown's price tag in best-ball formats.
The upside of finishing inside the top 40 is especially appealing. In regular weekly leagues, having Brown fizzle out as a fantasy non-factor and cutting him means ditching someone who you spent a lot less on than if you had to do the same with Crabtree. That means that if you draft Brown and are wrong, and he ends up being the Ravens' second wideout, he still may end up giving you more value relative to his cost than Crabtree does. And if you draft Crabtree and get the same thing, you are burned.
The best we can do is make an educated guess on which will be the team's top wideout this year. The collective fantasy football market is generally decent at making a judgement like that, and for whatever offseason chatter is worth, Joe Flacco has said Crabtree is "the guy".
Even if we're assuming Crabtree is the most likely to finish on top, the pair's almost identical efficiency numbers and the fact that Baltimore is investing more money in Brown in 2018 means that it's far from a lock. Even if it's less likely that Brown comes out on top, it looks to be closer than the drafting population thinks.
Once we factor in the huge difference in ADP and look at the potential payouts in the different scenarios, Brown stands out as the superior option. You may not be right as often if you take Brown, but if you are the reward vastly outweighs the risk.